Alexander Shaw’s curious cloth catalogue

Marbled paper binding of Shaw's catalogue (Sp Coll Hunterian K.5.22)

Marbled paper binding of Shaw’s catalogue (Sp Coll Hunterian K.5.22)

Two tapa samples from Shaw's catalogue (Sp Coll Hunterian K.5.22)

Two tapa samples from Shaw’s catalogue (Sp Coll Hunterian K.5.22)

On first inspection this modest little late 18th century volume is nothing unusual – a quarto printed volume, quarter bound with marbled paper and more than a little worse-for-wear – it’s the sort of ‘old book’ the University Library Special Collections is, well, full of. But when you open it up and begin to look through, you soon realise that this volume is different, and rather special. For it contains more than just text; it contains textiles too!

This is A catalogue of the different specimens of cloth collected in the three voyages of Captain Cook…  published in London in 1787. It contains eight letterpress pages of explanatory text followed by a promised 39 samples of tapa or barkcloth (our copy has just 37!) gathered from the Pacific islands during Captain Cook’s voyages, probably mostly during his third voyage. Tapa is a cloth produced from the bark of trees, usually the paper mulberry tree. The cloth seems to have been most commonly used by Polynesian islanders for clothing, bedding materials and for ceremonial purposes. Cook himself describes the process of manufacture in his journal of July 1769, written whilst in Tahiti:

‘All their cloth is I believe made from the bark of trees . . . They let this plant grow till it is about six or eight feet high . . . after this they cut it down and lay it a certain time in water, this makes the bark strip easy off the outside of which is this then scraped off with a rough shell, after this is done it looks like long strips of raged linnen. These they lay together, by means of a fine paste made of some sort of a root . . . after it is thus put together it is beat out to its proper breadth and fineness upon a long square piece of wood with wooden beaters the cloth being kept wet all the time; the beaters are made of hard wood with four square sides . . . cut into grooves of different fineness this makes the Cloth look at first sight as if it was wove with threed; but I believe the principal use of the grooves is to facilitate the beating it out . . . The finest sort when bleached is very white and coms nearest to fine Cotton. Thick cloth especialy fine is made by pasting two or more thickness’s of thin cloth . . . together . . . The making of Cloth is wholy the work of the women . . . common Colours are red, brow[n] and yellow with which they dye some pieces just as their fancy leads them’ *

Titlepage of Shaw's catalogue (Sp Coll Hunterian K.5.22)

Titlepage of Shaw’s catalogue (Sp Coll Hunterian K.5.22)

Tapa manufacture took place all across the Pacific from Tonga, Samoa and Fiji to the Solomon Islands, Java, New Zealand and as far north as Hawaii where it was called kapa. Indeed, it is thought that a large number of the samples in the catalogue are kapa, from Hawaii, having been collected on Cook’s third and final voyage.

The story behind the creation of the catalogue is rather murky and uncertain. The titlepage states that it was “properly arrainged [sic] and printed for Alexander Shaw, no. 379 Strand London”; however quite who Alexander Shaw was and what his purpose was in producing the catalogue is less clear. The established view asserts that Shaw was an ex-army officer who had served in the North American colonies and Jamaica before going on to become a military agent**. However recent research by a librarian at the National Library of Australia instead identifies another, I think more likely candidate, an Aberdeen-born bookseller and dealer in articles of natural history***. Indeed a bookseller with the name Alexander Shaw is listed in the British Book Trade Index based at the same Strand address with – significantly I think – a side-line trade in textiles and clothing!

Provenance inscriptions in our copy of Shaw's catalogue (Sp Coll Hunterian K.5.22)

Provenance inscriptions in our copy of Shaw’s catalogue (Sp Coll Hunterian K.5.22)

It is thought that Shaw (whoever he might have been) most likely acquired the tapa cloth at the 1781 sale of David Samwell, the surgeon’s mate on Cook’s third voyage****. If so, Shaw evidently held onto the cloth for some time before conceiving of the idea of the catalogue. Why exactly? That, we don’t know, but a printed note on the final page confirms that in addition to selling the catalogue, Shaw also offered samples for sale at his Strand shop, implying that the catalogue itself might be a canny means of disposing of, or at least cashing in on, his earlier acquisition/investment. The catalogue itself abstracts sections relating to cloth production and collection from various published accounts of Cook’s travels and prints these beside a dedication and a key, a numbered list of the samples, which is accompanied by anecdotes on context of collection. Shaw’s source for this numbered list is unknown but it does not seem to have been published elsewhere. David Samwell has been suggested as one possible source for the list.

David Samwell himself had a direct connection to the University of Glasgow’s great benefactor William Hunter, having studied anatomy under him in 1780-81. Moreover it’s thought that a number of Pacific ethnographic items collected by Hunter likely came from the 1781 Samwell sale.*5 Interestingly though the copy of the Shaw catalogue we now hold has no direct connection to Hunter but was a later donation to the Hunterian Museum Library. Like Shaw himself perhaps, our copy has an Aberdeen connection. An inscription dated Aberdeen 1812 records its presentation to a “Mr Nicol” from a “Dr Dyce”. Now I’m unsure who Mr Nicol might have been but I think Dr Dyce was likely William Dyce a respected physician, inventor and midwifery lecturer at Marischal College (also father of the noted painter of the same name) (see update below 4/4/17). The book was later presented to the Hunterian Museum Library in 1877 by William Lee, the University of Glasgow’s Professor of Ecclesiastical History.

While Hunter may not have owned a copy of the Shaw catalogue, some of his contemporaries seem to have gone rather tapa crazy. A manuscript note in another rather unusual surviving copy of Shaw’s catalogue asserts that Hunter’s friend, the Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant, upon seeing a copy of the catalogue contacted Shaw and purchased from him every existing sample of tapa Shaw still owned*6.

Tapa samples from Shaw's catalogue (Sp Coll Hunterian K.5.22)

Tapa samples from Shaw’s catalogue (Sp Coll Hunterian K.5.22)

More tapa samples from the catalogue (Sp Coll Hunterian K.5.22)

More tapa samples from the catalogue (Sp Coll Hunterian K.5.22)

One of the strangest and most frustrating features of this catalogue is the fact that despite having a numbered list of the 39 samples supposedly contained, virtually no two copies of the catalogue are alike, with the samples themselves bound in various orders. In our copy the samples are even bound in backwards, with what is clearly the decorated front of the cloth facing the rear of the book! Quite why this has happened is unclear but perhaps it is something to do with the fact that books printed during the 18th century were commonly sold unbound with the purchaser organising the binding themselves. That is easy enough for the binder where pages are numbered and printed signatures are present; it would be quite another story with unnumbered cloth samples. Yet a large number of the surviving copies seem to be bound in similar marbled paper boards implying perhaps an ‘edition binding’ where copies are bound prior to sale – a common enough practice at the time with certain types of books like bibles or grammars. This catalogue, you would imagine, would be a prime candidate for such pre-sale binding. In any case, if this was sold as a bound book, some confusion has clearly arisen during binding resulting in samples becoming mixed up. Perhaps Shaw was not present to oversee the binding.

Sample of Tapa on display in 'The Kangaroo and the Moose' also found in second issue of Shaw's catalogue (GLAHM E.598/2)

Sample of tapa on display in ‘The Kangaroo and the Moose’ also found in second issue of Shaw’s catalogue (GLAHM E.598/2)

A recent census of Shaw’s catalogue has identified 66 different surviving copies spread throughout the world*7. Over and above the binding confusion these 66 copies also seem to fall into two distinct categories: while all bear identical letterpress printed pages one group, of which ours forms part, contains what are apparently the original tapa samples; however, a second group contains an entirely different selection of samples. Watermark evidence (of the paper guards between the samples) in this second group dates it to not before 1805-6. So what is going on here? It seems likely that a quantity of the original printed sheets remained unsold (perhaps after Shaw sold all of his extra tapa to Pennant!), these lay around unused until c. 1806 whereupon a new batch of tapa cloth became available. At this point a second (and arguably somewhat fraudulent, since the list certainly doesn’t match the cloth!) issue was published. The 1806 date has been remarked upon since this is the date that a large sale of Cook and Pacific ethnographic items took place – that of Sir Ashton Lever. Just possibly, the Lever sale was the source for the tapa used in this c.1806 second issue of Shaw’s catalogue. It is interesting to note that one of the tapa samples found in this second issue of the work is apparently identical to the large tapa sample from Cook’s third voyage acquired by Hunter prior to his death in 1783 and on display as part of the ongoing The Kangaroo and the Moose exhibition. Perhaps Hunter and Ashton Lever (if the Shaw second issue tapa does indeed come from his collection) had a common source for their tapa.

At present there are still many unanswered questions regarding this work but, as copies around the world are digitised it will hopefully make studying them easier. Hopefully at some point in future we’ll be able to satisfactorily match up each of the samples in our copy with the correct printed identification in the key!


This blog was adapted from a Hunterian Insight talk of 24/11/15, part of the The Kangaroo and the Moose exhibition running until 21 February 2016

Update 4/4/17 – Many thanks to Erica Ryan of the National Library of Australia for confirming that Dr Dyce likely was, in fact, Dr William Dyce (1770-1835), a midwifery lecturer at Marischal. William Dyce was an active collector of natural history specimens and is therefore a good candidate. She also suggests that Mr Nicol was likely Surgeon Commander William Nicol, R.N. M.A. M.D. (1765-1827) of Marischal College who married Miss Margaret Dyce in November 1794.


*See Cook’s ‘Journals’ (1968) ed. J. C. Beaglehole, I pp. 132-3 quoted in Donald Kerr, Census of Alexander Shaw’s Catalogue of the Different Specimens of Cloth Collected in the Three Voyages of Captain Cook to the Southern Hemisphere, 1787
**See David Forbes, Hawaiian National Biography entry for Shaw as quoted by Maryanne Larkin ‘Tales and Textiles from Cook’s Pacific Voyages’ BSANZ Bulletin vol 27, no. 3 and 4 (2003)
***Erica Ryan, ‘The mysterious Mr Alexander H. Shaw bookseller, and dealer in articles of natural history in Aberdeen and London’ The National Library of Australia Behind the Scenes blog, 3 July 2015
**** Adrienne L. Kaeppler, ‘Artificial Curiosities’, being an exposition of native manufactures collected on the three voyages of Captain Cook R.N. (Honolulu, Bishop Museum Press, 1978), p. 48
*5 Adrienne L. Kaeppler, ‘Ethnographic treasures in The Hunterian from Cook’s voyages’ in E. Geoffery Hancock, Nick Pearce and Mungo Campbell (eds.) William Hunter’s world: the art and science of eighteenth-century collecting (Farnham, Ashgate, 2015) p.255
*6 ‘Staff favorites: Tapa Cloth from Captain Cook’s Voyages’ Clements Library Chronicles, April 28th 2010
*7 Donald Kerr, Census of Alexander Shaw’s Catalogue of the Different Specimens of Cloth Collected in the Three Voyages of Captain Cook to the Southern Hemisphere, 1787 (Kerr provides a good overview of the binding complications and two different ‘issues’)

Categories: Special Collections

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2 replies

  1. Shaw’s printed list of samples appears to derive from the manuscript edition of the work, as collected by Rex Nan Kivell –


  1. Bibliographie – James Cook – 43 – 44 – 45 – Détours d'Océanie

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